‘Coming from Germany where most people dislike small talk, I loved and cherished the talkative and friendly nature of the Spanish’

After a month travelling across Spain with very little Spanish with which to meet the locals, Sana Ahmad fell in love with the country and the people, and discovered the language barrier didn't matter one bit.

'Coming from Germany where most people dislike small talk, I loved and cherished the talkative and friendly nature of the Spanish'
Photo: Sana Ahmad

Before moving to Germany, the one question everyone would ask me was if or not I had mastered the language.

People who hadn’t even ever stepped a foot in Germany made it their mission to warn me about the impending language barrier I would face.

Despite having attended a basic German course back home I remember feeling extremely nervous while I muttered a timid ‘Danke’ to the air hostesses as we exited the plane. Not knowing a country’s language is daunting and isolating.

Two of the emotions I did not want to feel as I already somehow missed home. It has been a year now since I moved to Munich and I can safely say that I have never felt as if I could not survive without German.

Maintaining a social life and finding work is a completely different discussion but otherwise you can get away with English. I have seen that in most parts of Europe but Spain.

Since the past year I have spent two months in Spain, loving each and every moment of it despite it being the one place in Europe I felt I could not get away with English.

A month or so ago I was travelling by train in Valencia when the ticket checker came up to me and starting talking in Spanish.

Saying that my Spanish is very basic would be an understatement; it’s basically non-existent. As he kept speaking in Spanish and I in English,

I kept looking around if anyone of the passengers could perhaps help. Most of the people surrounding me were my age; some of them even looked like University students yet none of them knew enough English to convey the message to me.

When we both realized this, he started to communicate through actions and finally got his message across. Days after this incident I still could not stop thinking about it. Not once had the guy lost his cool, not once did he show any annoyance regarding me not speaking the language.

In Spain, I saw that everywhere. In spite of it being the place where English was scarcely spoken or understood by the locals; it is one of the most hospitable nations I have ever visited.

During our trip to Spain this year; we stood outside the best buñuelos place, Fabian, when we met with an Arab-French woman who had only recently moved to Spain. While talking about our mutual love for Spain and its people, she perfectly summed up the words to describe them. She said, ‘It’s simple, in a world full of racism and prejudice; Spanish people still remain humane.’

I cannot count the times I had a full conversation with random people in Spain as they spoke Spanish and I English; despite language being an obvious barrier, it never felt like that.

No matter where we were in Spain; no one ever seemed to be annoyed about our non-existant Spanish. Among the many people that made me fall even more in love with Spain was this gentleman from a small food stall.

For anyone who doesn’t know, Spanish people love their cerdo. So as a Muslim, the food scene can sometimes be limited; especially when you’re craving a hotdog. For that very reason I was in a state of disbelief when this man told me that the hotdog I was ogling at had ‘no cerdo’.

I was overjoyed, surprised and still a little vary. Looking at our expressions he reassured us once again by mentioning that the meat was halal. While we were trying to explain to him in our broken Spanish that we believed him, he suddenly said something and disappeared into the kitchen.

Moments later he came out with a bag of frozen hotdogs and excitedly pointed to the ‘halal’ logo on the pack. In spite of there being a que behind us, he went above and beyond to make his customers feel comfortable, all that with a smile on his face.

Coming from Germany where most people dislike small talk, I loved and cherished the talkative and friendly nature of the Spanish. A few days before heading back I visited a local salon, ‘Belleza Valentina’ and met two of the most loving souls.

Yolanda who only knew a few words in English did not let that come between her hospitable nature.  While she took a break from threading one of my eyebrows, she asked to have a look at the google translate app I had previously used.

For the next few minutes we had a proper conversation through the app; she asked me where I came from, my travels in Spain and what I thought of the country. She went completely out of her way to have a conversation with me and that mere fact brightened my day. For me, she is a true representation of the people of Spain.

As a foreigner you should be aware of the scarcity of English but I can assure you that the scarcity never becomes a barrier. Consequently, they might even start speaking very loudly in the hopes that volume may somehow magically allow you to understand the language. Nevertheless, the hospitality and warmth of the people is far too powerful to be overcome by a language gap.

Sana Ahmad is from Pakistan and is currently living in Munich, Germany with her husband but travelled extensively in Spain, visiting Valencia, Barcelona, Madrid, Altea, Cordoba and Granada.  Follow her travels on Twitter and Instagram


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Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.


Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 


Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.


Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.


The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.